Why Goals Don’t Work As We Expect

We relentlessly set goals — weekly, monthly, yearly.

We think if there’s a goal, we’re continually moving towards it. The goal resembles a destination, and it seems as if our desire is strong enough, we’ll be able to get there.

But it’s not the case.

As James Clear pointed out, winners and losers have the same goals. Every Olympian wants to win gold at the next games. Every coach wants his team to win the championship. Every entrepreneur wants to build a million-dollar business (or almost everyone).

But not everyone succeeds. And the problem is that goals are about results. It’s about the things behind the door, not in front of them. And we can’t control what’s behind the same door, no matter how much we want to.

In December 2019, I had a chance to hear Dave Limp, the SVP of Devices and Services at Amazon, at the fireside chat held at Ring in Santa Monica. When someone asked Dave how Amazon managed to achieve financial success so many times, despite the circumstances, his answer stuck in my head for a long time:

We are focusing on what we can control instead of what we cannot. We can’t control goals, but we definitely can work on our systems aimed at achieving these goals. Take care of the inputs and the outputs will take care of themselves.

Dave Limp, SVP Amazon Devices

Take care of the inputs, and the outputs will take care of themselves. This is an ingeniously simple and, at the same time, a profound statement.

On the way home, I thought about how it applied to my life. And it turned out that most of the things I achieved were the product of systems, not goals.

I didn’t plan to become an exchange student in the US when I was in high school. I just put a lot of effort into learning English. I didn’t intend to become a product manager. I just did my best to have people around who are smarter than me. And I badly wanted to build things that extend beyond borders. Conversely, most of the things I had goals for were never achieved.

The sample size doesn’t claim statistical significance, but I’m sure that many of us experienced the same.

More to it, goals limit our happiness. We have inflated hopes for delayed gratification. We think that when we achieve that X goal, only then can we finally become happy. But this is nothing more than a pure illusion.

The happiness we get from achieving the goal passes by at the speed of light. It’s similar to when you get happy after you cleaned your house on the weekend, but become upset when it’s a mess again on Monday. The reason is that your lifestyle hasn’t changed, so happiness won’t endure.

If we want to achieve better results, we need to forget about goal setting — and focus on the system instead.

If our goal is to build a million-dollar business, then our system is how we test ideas, hire people, engage customers… The list goes on and on, but the point is clear.

Still and all, we all want to be happy but achieving goals does not guarantee it. Happiness is about falling in love with the process, not the product. We don’t have to put off happiness with the process — we are happy here and now. There is a particular approach in machine learning and AI called unsupervised learning. Such algorithms look for previously unknown patterns in a particular dataset with minimal human intervention.

Systems is an unsupervised learning approach to life. We don’t program everything in advance. We’re embracing the unknown and the convexity of possibilities. As Steve Jobs said, we cannot connect the dots in our lives by looking forward; they can only be connected by looking back.

So put some trust in unsupervised learning, and it will somehow connect the dots for your future self.

  1. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts. It’s a helpful article. I was looking for the answer that you provided.

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